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School Facilities

Maintenance And Modernization Of

As public education in the United States entered the twenty-first century, educational leaders and policy-makers were faced with increasing costs for the maintenance and modernization of educational facilities. Driven by two factors–a considerable backlog of deferred maintenance expenditures and needs, and the need to ensure that classrooms have adequate facilities to accommodate the growing use of technology–estimates of the costs for maintenance and modernization of school facilities have soared.

In a 2002 article, Philip E. Geiger stated that as of January 2002 it would cost between $112 and 150 billion to "bring the nation's schools up to good condition" (p. 43). The U.S. Department of Education (DoE) estimated that the cost would be $127 billion. Moreover, the DoE estimated that 30 percent of the country's schools needed extensive repairs and another 40 percent needed replacement of some major component. This suggests that at the beginning of the twenty-first century some 70 percent of schools across the United States were in need of major repairs.

In 2000 the National Education Association estimated that total school infrastructure needs–including technology–amounted to some $322 billion. This estimate included costs of new school construction, additions to existing buildings, renovation and retrofitting, deferred maintenance, and major improvements to school grounds, as well as the costs of technology.

Estimating the age of a school building is difficult because many schools have had additions or major remodeling at some point in their history, either to accommodate more students or to update and upgrade the facility. The DoE found that in 1999 the average age of public schools across the United States was forty years. Moreover, on average it had been eleven years since these schools had been renovated. The DoE estimated the functional age of each building and found that the average functional age of school buildings was sixteen years.

Schools in central cities tend to be older than those in other areas. Moreover, in such urban districts, it has often been somewhat longer since a major renovation has taken place. While the differences are relatively small, high minority population schools tend to be in older buildings as well. Many of these older schools need substantial repairs as well as upgrading to meet newer building codes and fire safety standards.

In addition, it is generally these older buildings that do not have sufficient capacity to meet the wiring demands of new technology. Frequently classrooms do not have enough electrical outlets to support more than one or two computers, and many remain without connections to the Internet, even via telephone modem connections. Wiring for school-wide networks is also made difficult because older construction often has solid walls and no false ceilings where wires and networking cable can be installed. This adds yet more to the costs of modernization for technology.


When faced with a revenue shortfall, most school districts strive to keep major funding reductions away from the classroom. One way to save money in the short term is to defer maintenance on school facilities. While this is often a useful tool for short-term savings, the deterioration in the condition of an improperly maintained building is very obvious and can often begin within a matter of a few years. Given the high cost of building new schools, this approach may be inappropriate in the long term. California, for example, has an estimated school infrastructure need of more than $22 billion, with another $10 billion or more needed for technology.

Much of this could be prevented if proper preventative maintenance procedures are implemented and used by school districts. Geiger provided a list of seven priorities school districts need to consider in developing a high-quality school maintenance program:

  1. A commitment on the part of the board, the superintendent, and senior staff to facility maintenance.
  2. Development of a comprehensive preventative maintenance program.
  3. Adequate funding for both preventative maintenance and capital improvement.
  4. A willingness to consider new ideas for construction and maintenance of facilities.
  5. Continual search for new and different ways to pay for maintenance and construction needs.
  6. Careful review of district goals and policies to make sure facility management receives appropriate levels of funding in the annual budget cycle.
  7. A plan to link academic programs to facility needs.

In a 1999 article, Michael Zureich provided evidence of the success of adopting the fourth priority above, that of considering new ideas. Zureich described three schools where a coordinated design and building committee had led to better use of less expensive and easier-to-maintain construction materials, resulting in reduced construction costs and lower lifetime maintenance costs. He pointed out that it is important to consider the strength, reliability, and life of all construction materials and to plan for maintenance needs in the initial construction. Zureich suggested that schools using this process have reduced design, construction, and maintenance costs by between 18 and 25 percent.


In addition to maintaining existing school buildings, there is a continual need for modernization. This is a far broader need than the typical concern over creating an infrastructure for technology. Many schools built in the past do not provide adequate space resources for the way schools educate children in the early twenty-first century. Efforts to reduce class size across the nation along with growth in the number of students have placed a burden on school facilities and increased the demand for more classroom space. Moreover, teacher efforts to use classrooms in different ways to maximize learning often require additional square footage in each classroom. For example, in elementary schools, the traditional room full of tables has often been replaced by a room with desks on one side and a large carpet in another part of the room where students sit on the floor for certain activities. Some rooms have special corners for computers or for quiet reading activities. All of this requires additional space and reorganization of the classroom space.

In earlier periods, schools were built to meet the requirements of educational methods that are no longer in favor. Many schools built in the 1970s relied on the "open classroom" model where there were no walls between classrooms. As teaching moved away from this model, schools had to spend substantial sums of money to reconfigure their facilities.

Other more mundane changes are also an important part of a continuous modernization process. Installation of white boards to replace traditional chalk boards or changing wall surfaces to make it easier to hang displays and teaching aids can make a tremendous difference in the appearance of a classroom. Yet even these simple things can be expensive, and planning for such upgrades is important. Furthermore, as new schools are built with such features as work areas for teachers attached to clusters of classrooms, the school budget needs to provide adequate funds for work materials and equipment for teachers (such as computers, copiers, and telephones) and for reasonable replacement programs for these important tools.


The growing use of technology–particularly computers–in instruction has placed a whole new set of demands on the construction, maintenance, and modernization of school facilities. Although technology in schools is a much broader concept than simply the use of computers, it is computers that are most frequently thought of in discussions of educational technology today. Schools face problems with acquiring adequate numbers of computers, replacing them on a regular and frequent basis, providing the electrical power to operate them in each classroom, and providing and maintaining the wiring infrastructure needed to keep them connected with the school and across the district and the community more generally.

Computers represent a new challenge to school budgeting processes as they have a life span of three to five years, somewhat longer than typical "current" expenditure plans and considerably shorter than the traditional capital funding models used by school districts. As a result, many districts have had difficulty in purchasing and keeping adequate numbers of up-to-date computers. Some have turned to lease programs; others rely on donations of computers–new and used. Other districts have simply not replaced old and obsolete computers in a timely fashion.

Even if a district has managed to develop a purchase plan to provide adequate computer systems for all its schools, there is still the problem of electrical wiring and connections between computers. Older schools simply do not have the capacity to handle the electrical and wiring needs of state-of the-art computers. Funding for installation of the infrastructure may be available through the e-rate funding, a process whereby telecommunications firms contribute to a fund whose proceeds are distributed on a competitive basis to school districts for technology needs.

Once installed, there are also substantial costs to maintaining computer networks. Updating all of the routers and servers needed to keep the computers communicating as well as repair technicians to fix computers and related peripherals when they break down are essential to successful technology implementation. Funding for all of this needs to be a regular part of a district's budget.

Sources of Funding

The maintenance and modernization needs of schools require both one-time and continuing sources of money, with maintenance and modernization requiring different approaches. Maintenance is probably best funded through budget allocations of current resources. This means that adequate funds need to be allocated each year to be sure that the investment a district has made in facilities is not lost because of premature deterioration of the buildings. Some districts in some states have had some success in getting community redevelopment agencies to provide a portion of the tax increment they receive to stimulate development for school facility needs. Often this money is used to supplement existing allocations for maintenance.

Modernization may require one-time funding options. Some of the alternatives available to school districts include:

  • Bond Issues: By taking advantage of the taxexempt status of school district bond issues, education agencies can often borrow funds for capital projects at relatively low interest rates. Bonds typically require voter approval and, depending on state law, may need to be accounted for in a separate budgetary and accounting fund. Nevertheless, they remain a powerful and relatively inexpensive way to fund facility needs.
  • Special Local Option Sales Taxes: Allowed in some states, these are sales tax increments added to the state and local sales taxes already collected. While such taxes can be a reliable source of funds, local sales taxes may also inhibit development of commercial and retail centers in the district.
  • Voter-Approved Levies or Sinking Funds: Some states allow school districts to levy special taxes for specific purposes such as technology. Others allow districts to levy taxes for a sinking fund, which collects the revenues and accumulates interest so that construction and/or modernization needs can be funded through the cash balance in the fund.
  • State and Federal Funding: Special state and federal programs are sometimes available to fund improvements and construction. Individual state programs to help meet deferred maintenance needs are common, and the federal government has provided funding for school facilities through the Qualified Zone Academy Bond program. In each case these programs provide local school districts with funds for improving or building school facilities.


Maintaining school facilities is important to providing high-quality education programs. More important, by investing in strong preventative maintenance programs, school facilities can continue to serve students for long periods of time. Modernization of school facilities has faced a number of new challenges in recent years with the advent of the personal computer. As new technologies are increasingly integrated into programs of instruction, the ability to adequately finance the acquisition of this equipment and to have the infrastructure in each school to support this technology is also important.


GEIGER, PHILIP E. 2002. "Deferred School Maintenance Creates National Crisis." School Business Affairs 68 (1):43.

NATIONAL CENTER FOR EDUCATION STATISTICS. 2000. Condition of America's Public School Facilities, 1999. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

NATIONAL EDUCATION ASSOCIATION. 2000. Modernizing Our Schools: What Will It Cost? Washington, DC: National Education Association.

ZUREICH, MICHAEL. 1999. "Yes, Reductions in School Construction Costs Are Possible." CASBO Journal 64 (2):32–38.


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